Last week I attended a talk by Marvin Minsky. Among many other things, he talked about his decision not to go into mathematics because of a lunch he had, while a student at Harvard, with the late Andrew Gleason — one of the greatest theoretical mathematicians of the twentieth century.

The way Marvin told it, he realized over the course of that lunch that Gleason was such a toweringly brilliant and intuitive mathematician, that Marvin could never hope to rise to that level in the field of theoretical mathematics. And so he decided to pursue other areas, which is fortunate for us, because Marvin went on to achieve world changing results in such diverse fields as artificial intelligence, cognitive psychology, computational linguistics and robotics. As well as inventing the confocal microscope.

As it happened, my mentor when I was an undergraduate at Harvard was Andrew Gleason — one and the same. By the time I got there he was a legendary professor in the theoretical math department. However, he still took the time to teach small undergraduate seminars, and to discuss math with students like me.

I found being in the presence of somebody like Gleason to be both profoundly inspiring and profoundly humbling. Whereas we mere mortals worked through mathematical theorems a bit at a time — like chipping away at rock — he seemed to saunter through the same space as though it were made of air. He just saw deeply into mathematical concepts, and then proceeded to prove things about them, without apparent effort.

I imagine it must have been similar to play a game of basketball with Michael Jordan in his prime, or to jam with Amadeus Mozart. From time to time individuals appear within this world who are simply on an entirely different plane of capability. We can talk to them, we can even trade ideas back and forth with them, but there is still a vast gulf between the truly great and the merely very good.

As it happened, my experience as an undergraduate at Harvard convinced me not to become a theoretical mathematician. I realized I could never achieve what someone like Andrew Gleason could achieve in that field, which got me thinking about what I might be able to do in some related field.

That summer I discovered computer graphics, and I never looked back. It certainly helped that Gleason had been my professor. He taught me a mathematical way of looking at things that I still apply to the things I create with computers — every day.

But it was only last week that I discovered that Andrew Gleason had the same effect on Marvin Minsky that he had on me. How wonderful to find out that Marvin and I have something like that in common. 🙂

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